Thriving at the Edges of the World
The edges of the world capture our attention. Think of frontiers such as the frozen mountains of Antarctica, the Australian outback, or the Amazon jungle. They are places of great opportunity and, at the same time, filled with unknown threats.
As Americans, we have long been cast in the mold of the pioneer, thriving at the edges. Think of Benjamin Franklin creating the first public library, the Wright brothers taking flight, or innovators such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs bringing us into the digital age. The interesting thing about the pioneering spirit is that it is equally conservative and progressive in its outlook. “How so?” you say.
Well, first let’s define these terms (as delivered by Google):
Progressive: a person advocating or implementing social reform or new, liberal ideas.
Conservative: a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics.
With these definitions in mind, think about pioneers in innumerable fields who innovated in creative ways. Their drive to come up with new solutions required innovation and progressive approaches. Yet, at the same time, they innovated to conserve their independence, values, and the opportunity to determine their own destiny.
I am sure that not every pioneer felt drawn to each perspective equally, but they both needed to be present to thrive on the edges of the world. It was not possible to affirm only one way of thinking. It was the combination of these two perspectives that made thriving possible. The progressive perspective kept them moving forward into new possibilities, and the conservative perspective kept them grounded in their values. Together, both of these perspectives made these innovators a powerful force.
Centuries earlier and on another continent, a frontier of a different kind saw a powerful mix of these perspectives held in tandem. E. Stanley Jones, the well-known author, preacher, and missionary to India, shares how the pioneers of the early Church held both of these perspectives. Jones, in his devotional book The Way, highlighted the diversity of the prophets and teachers named in Acts 13:1 as evidence of a Church that brought together differing perspectives and held them in tension.
The Antioch church held both of these [perspectives] together in unbroken fellowship, each cross-fertilizing the other. Any church that does not hold both in a living tension will have no growing point; it will become barren. An arid liberalism and an acrid conservatism are both sterile. Together they could be fruitful. The church must not allow these two groups to drive a wedge into its life. We need a radical conservatism and a conservative radicalism. (pg. 314)
The Church in Antioch was on the edge of the world in its day. Those who had been persecuted by the Jews in Jerusalem had fled to many places, where they were on the leading edge of Christianity. There, at the edge of the world that knew of Jesus, they thrived. In fact, Acts 11:26 says “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”
These Jesus-followers could not afford the luxury of settling into one way of thinking. They had to be both innovating into the future of the Church and guarding the truth of Jesus’ teaching. And, as E. Stanley Jones so powerfully said, it was the “living tension” that made them a vibrant force and the first missionary sending Church, sending Paul and Barnabas on their inaugural missionary journey.
Today we sit on the edge of a new frontier. The assembly lines of the 20th Century are diminished and the digital age has disturbed the waters in every pool. We are now finding our way in an age where ideas become empires, reliable barriers are erased by invisible forces long forgotten, and the gaps between us grow as quickly as the technology tools meant to bridge them are created.
On the edges of the world, the North American Church (along with the Church in Europe) seems helpless to push forward into the new frontiers of the 21st Century. I wonder if it has to do with the sterility caused by our polarized positions? The conservatives in our churches pull back to protect what once was and the progressives launch forward eagerly anticipating what will be. How can the Church survive being pulled apart by these forces? The answer is, “It can’t!”
For us in the U.S. Church particularly, here are a few examples of the tensions we must hold:
- We must affirm what has made our country great and yet also integrate into a diverse and globalized world.
- We must uphold the rule of law in regards to immigration and at the same time welcome the foreigner generously.
- We must boldly love those who struggle with same sex attraction while honoring God’s clear design for man and woman.
- We must serve the poor lovingly and yet encourage healthy meritocracy.
It isn’t comfortable to live with these kinds of tensions, but it is what Jesus did. We need to embrace the example of the frontier in Antioch, heed Jones’ wisdom, and resist the tendency to allow differing mindsets to drive the Church apart. Let us humble our hearts, listen to each other, integrate our thinking, and see what God will do with the result. I am optimistic that the result will be a thriving Church on the edges of a new world!